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The Public Accountability Initiative on the University of Texas Frack Study Controversy

The Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) has released a statement regarding the panel of experts that the University of Texas (UT) at Austin named to review its fracking report.

PAI is the same watchdog group that unmasked the recent UB Shale Resources and Society Institute’s report as flawed research copied from an earlier flawed report and passed off as “peer-reviewed” when in fact it wasn’t.

They then showed the University of Texas to be passing off a pro-fracking report authored in part by an individual with significant financial interest in fracking. To its credit, UT is embarking on a review of how such a thing could have happened—which is more than can be said for UB. To UT’s discredit, well, read PAI’s report:

The University of Texas at Austin has taken an important step in initiating a review of its fracking report. The report misled the public about the environmental risks associated with fracking and was led by a professor who failed to disclose his energy industry ties. The university’s proactive approach to addressing this breach of the public trust should be commended.

There are, however, serious questions about the independence of the expert panel the university has named. Given the conflict of interest at the root of this report’s problems, it is extremely troubling that the university chose an energy industry insider to chair the panel. Norman Augustine served for nearly 20 years on the board of oil and gas company ConocoPhillips and its predecessor company, Phillips Petroleum. During that time, he was awarded millions of dollars in stock and cash compensation, some of which he continues to receive in retirement in the form of annual payments of deferred compensation.* Mr. Augustine’s relationship to the gas industry is strikingly similar to that of the original study’s author, Chip Groat, who has earned close to $2 million as a director of drilling company Plains Exploration and Production (PXP).

ConocoPhillips is also one of the University of Texas Energy Institute’s top publicly-named named donors, having given a five-year, $1.5 million grant for energy research in 2010.

Unfortunately, the university’s choice of Mr. Augustine throws the independence of this review into question before it has even begun.

* Note: It appears that Augustine continues to receive annual deferred stock awards from ConocoPhillips to this day. ConocoPhillips’s 2009 proxy states that Mr. Augustine elected to defer $3.1 million in stock awards to a Vanguard account, which was to be paid out in ten annual installments beginning in July 2009 – meaning that he is still receiving these payments. See the footnote on page 62 of ConocoPhillips’ 2009 proxy:

Quelle surprise.

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